‘All the Light We Cannot See’ takes a different look at World War II

06/06/2014 7:00 AM

06/07/2014 9:10 AM

Late in Anthony Doerr’s second novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” a character thinks, “Every hour, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.”

As its last eyewitnesses leave us, the second world war remains such an anchor in our collective history that writers today continue to use it as a stage for their unfolding dramas. More than just the circumstances themselves, which seem to be endlessly fascinating, there has been a long a tradition of pairing the war with meditations on storytelling and the art of fiction, from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and J.D. Salinger’s short story “For Esme — With Love and Squalor” to Ian McEwen’s “Atonement” and, now, “All the Light.”

The novel alternates between two teenagers on opposite sides of the war, each struggling to survive while the Allies bombard the city of Saint-Malo in the summer of 1944. These short sections keep the reader in suspense while we flash back to see how the characters were brought to this point.

Marie-Laure, a blind girl, grows up in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. While he works, Marie-Laure reads Jules Verne in Braille and explores the museum, learning about shells and gemstones from the researchers. When war breaks out, Marie-Laure and her father flee to an uncle’s house in Saint-Malo, on the Brittany coast.

Werner Pfennig, an orphan with a fairy-tale-ready shock of white hair, grows up in a German coal mining town. He and his sister spend nights listening to French broadcasts of science lessons for children before his aptitude for repairing radios wins him a place at an elite Nazi academy.

Another story thread about a missing diamond is woven through the novel, infusing everything with an echo of myth.

The challenge for a writer in 2014 is, of course, how to make the story fresh without repeating what readers today have seen in countless films, TV shows, books and history classes at school. And this is where Doerr’s book really stands out.

The blind girl in the house by the sea, the white-haired boy of genius — already the set-up sounds more fantasy than history. A single narrator recounts the story, seeing into the minds of each character in turn, even the bombers flying above the city. He can tell us what everyone we’ve met is doing at a particular moment in time and what will become of them.

But to this Doerr adds a third layer: Science and the natural world here take on the role of the supernatural in a traditional fairy tale. The geology of diamonds forming, the biology of mollusks and snails and other shelled creatures, the mysteries of electromagnetism and trigonometry and radio waves — these are the details that provoke a sense of wonder, in the characters as well as in us.

Every incident and detail seems tailor-made for this sense of the world as both magical and cruel, fated and random, and speaks to one of the book’s central tensions: Can legends be true, or are our circumstances merely controlled by chance? Can we believe in the happy ending while the city is being demolished around us?

Doerr doesn’t look away from the ugliness of the war, but he doesn’t let it dominate the story. Rather, trusting the reader to already be well-versed in, say, the tenets of National Socialism, the Holocaust and D-Day, he acknowledges what’s going on without having to state it outright. Thus, when moments of violence do appear, they remain more memorable in contrast.

The ending, too, walks a middle ground, happy enough to leave the reader with that sense of wonder and hope intact, but unflinching enough be real.

Everything in the book seems deliberately and thoughtfully chosen for its overall effect. At 14, Werner is a perfect age — young enough to evoke our sympathy as he is more or less forced into the Wehrmacht, yet old enough for his participation to present a moral dilemma worthy of a hero.

Marie-Laure’s blindness allows Doerr to luxuriate in the sensory details of sound, smell and the tactile geometry of objects. In the writing, he sets himself alongside authors such as Colum McCann (“Transatlantic,” “Let the Great World Spin”), who create historical scenes using poetic language, choosing the sensation of the intense close-up over explanation.

It’s one thing to understand that many Parisians tried to flee ahead of the German advance, quite another to sit in a crowded train station while: “Trunks slide across tiles and a little dog yaps and a conductor’s whistle blows and some kind of machinery coughs to a start and then dies.”

These details, added to legends about diamonds and model wooden cities and secret chambers of snail shells, have the effect of making a reader feel as if she is living within a story rather than contemplating history. Which may sound similar on paper, but in experience they are rather different things.

Christine Pivovar is a reviewer for The Star.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (544 pages; Scribner; $27)

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